Braille Monitor                                                 February 2011

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A Crisis in Instructional Technology in Higher Education

by Jim Marks

Jim MarksFrom the Editor: Jim Marks is a longtime Federation leader, having served as first vice president of the Montana affiliate. He currently works as the state administrator of Montana's combined vocational rehabilitation and independent living program. Before changing careers in 2010, he directed disability services for students at the University of Montana for over twenty-one years. He served as an officer and leader in the Association on Higher Education and Disability and is still in the fight for access to information in postsecondary education. The following article discusses the history of e-books, their evolution, and their importance to today’s students. Here is what Jim has to say:

I first understood how radically information technology was changing higher education when a professor told me that the bulk of students in his online course were located in university dormitories only a few yards away from the classroom. I assumed that traditional courses were taught as they always had been and that online education was for the student learning miles away from campus. We used to call online courses "distance education," but the concept of distance becomes irrelevant in the new foundation for college learning. The truth is that technology alters everything we used to know about traditional instruction, and blind people must find a way to stay in synch with all the changes.

Take, for instance, the growing momentum of e-books. From a traditional point of view one might look at e-books as simply an alternative format to print. However, e-books make possible things that print can never do, and it is these possibilities that challenge our presumptions about the way college students learn.

E-books broke free from a print paradigm almost as soon as publishers and professors realized their potential. They quickly evolved into e-learning systems. With today's information technology students not only read, they interact with instructors and peers, complete exercises, do research, take tests and quizzes, and accomplish all learning functions online. Professors build their courses in ways that take advantage of the possibilities that instructional technology provides. For example, course lectures become supplemental and sometimes even optional as students conduct their learning through e-learning systems. Sometimes professors never grade a single paper or test. The technology does it for them. Their attention goes into the development and delivery of the instruction. Instead of finding themselves isolated by technology, students use electronic tools to connect with peers, instructors, and the course material in ways that are extremely effective and meaningful.

The technology also radically changes the publishing industry in ways most did not expect. We used to believe that students would want e-books purely for the sake of the medium. We mistakenly thought that e-books are cool and cool sells. It turns out that most people like print, and early attempts by publishers to provide e-books fell well short of marketing goals.

Just because e-books did not sell for their own sake does not mean technology is finished working its magic, though. The behavior of students, along with the keen observation of publishers, spun things down a different path. With powerful Internet tools, students can search for used books in a global marketplace. In the old days the local college bookstore was the only source for college books. Today, thanks to the Internet, college students can find their books from a nearly infinite collection of booksellers. The broadening of the choices not only helped students find the least expensive version of their college textbooks, the choices made it possible to buy used books or books with the same content published in different ways. All these consumer choices severely hurt new book sales. Faced with steeply declining new book sales, publishers had to find a way to control the market.

Everyone knows that fire must be fought with fire, and the publishing industry realized it must fight technology with technology. Instructional technology makes it possible for publishers to control the market. E-books and e-learning systems do not have a used-book market, nor is there a need for multiple booksellers. When an e-book or an e-learning system is published, the publisher sells one new version to each student with no allowance for a used market. Moreover, publishers can sell their books and systems directly to the student, thus cutting out intermediaries like college bookstores.

Technology may have created a near catastrophe for publishers, but it also promises to be the industry's salvation. The trouble is that every action has consequences which include many positive aspects such as a more affordable higher education, better interaction with peers and teachers, and development of rapidly improving learning technologies that make more and better learning possible. Of course negative consequences abound as well. For example, we can expect fewer print books, the loss of college bookstores, and the exclusion from education of certain groups in society.

So what does all this mean for blind college students? I believe these developments present the most significant crisis in the civil rights of blind people today. The technologies that are changing higher education are not accessible to or useable by the blind except in a frighteningly small number of cases. Other students can jump into the technology with enthusiasm. Thanks to the barriers imposed on them, blind students struggle to accomplish even the simplest functions in this new and emerging learning environment. As higher education moves away from print and towards more and more instructional technology, blind college students face a brutal shutout from postsecondary education, which means a shutout from everything that higher education does for individuals and society.

What makes the crisis particularly painful is the fact that the technology in and of itself presents no inherent barriers for nonvisual access. Ironically, not only can technology work for the blind, but the blind led the way in the first applications of instructional technology in higher education.

The very first e-books came from the 1970s collaboration between the National Federation of the Blind and Dr. Raymond Kurzweil. The early Kurzweil Reading Machine converted print to an electronic format that blind people could read with the aid of computer voice synthesis. Moreover, the first e-book service in the world stemmed from the work of Dr. George Kerscher and his former company, Computerized Books for the Blind. Kerscher started his program in the mid-1980s at the University of Montana. As a blind graduate student in computer science, Kerscher started the service in order to improve access to instructional materials by blind college students. Blind people knew that we could use the technology to gain accessibility the likes of which we had never known. Even today the possibilities remain equally promising.

The thing is that blind people face a political problem more than a technological problem. Done right, technology puts blind people on equal footing with the sighted. The crisis for blind college students comes from at least two major factors, neither of which is a technological barrier. First, designers fail to include accessibility as a key element of design. In the rush to publish, and with no apparent malice, publishers simply forget about accessibility. Accessibility becomes an afterthought, and afterthoughts are more difficult and expensive to fix than doing it right in the first place.

Second, publishers insist on controlling copyrights, so they deliberately build security systems into e-books that prevent access through the assistive technologies that blind people use to read. Even though access and property rights can coexist and do not have to be mutually exclusive, the press for accessibility causes publishers to hang on fiercely to their copyrights. Somehow we must find a solution that lets everyone have his or her cake and eat it too.

Civil rights laws do not mandate that publishers produce accessible materials. However, those same laws require colleges and universities to assure access to their programs. In a June 2010 letter to college and university presidents, the Office for Civil Rights of the US Department of Education admonished campuses to use only those instructional technologies that are accessible by blind students. A few months before that letter the US Department of Justice testified before the House Judiciary Committee that the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act require accessibility to information technology. And at this time the US Access Board is hearing testimony about strengthening the regulations that prohibit discrimination in information technology. Clearly colleges and universities must comply with civil rights protections by making certain that the instructional materials are accessible to and usable by blind students and others who cannot read print due to a disability. Blind students who find themselves shut out from their studies cannot seek relief from publishers. We must go after our colleges and universities. The obligations of higher education then will shape what publishers provide, because publishers will find no market for discriminatory instructional materials.

In other words, the advocacy of the blind will eliminate the market for discriminatory instructional materials. The wheels are already turning, and the promise of a more accessible future is within our grasp. The United States is going beyond prohibiting discrimination; it is talking about integration and effective communication, all predicated on the premise that it is respectable to be blind.

Institutions of higher learning rarely speak with a single voice. Instead higher education is a cacophony of many voices. Instruction varies not only from school to school or department to department, but from instructor to instructor. The emerging instructional technologies cater to this individualism. Publishing marketers sell to the individual instructor, and this creates serious management issues for higher education authorities.

Someone must be in charge of the bigger picture. Someone has to control technology lest it control us. We cannot and should not throw up our hands and let technology create a learning environment that denies, excludes, and discriminates. Who is that someone? Anyone who knows the National Federation of the Blind already knows the answer. The blind need to step up and take control of our own lives and the services we use. We must not passively accept the consequences of tools that change systems and outcomes. Instead we must master the tools and put them to work as they should be used.

Recent articles about this issue in the Chronicle of Higher Education and other publications seem always to find a blind person who decries assertive advocacy. That passive person inevitably expresses mystification about why any blind person would tackle the access problem by using the due-process options available, but pressing for the elimination of discrimination in higher education sure beats waiting for the remote possibility that the problem will solve itself. Remember that the blind face a political rather than a technical problem in accessing higher education instructional materials. If we can find ways to make our priority for equal access the priority of those who decide what happens in higher education, blind college students will be able to study on equal footing with their sighted peers.

Our lawsuits over the discriminatory use of the Amazon Kindle at Arizona State University and other campuses were necessary in making the priority of the blind the priority of higher education leaders. We got their attention, and we are continuing to get consideration as we tackle other issues such as access to e-learning systems and Websites at Penn State or the Law School Aptitude Test. There are reasons behind the US Departments of Education and Justice and the US Access Board’s getting behind access rights for the blind, and those reasons have a number. That number is the fifty-thousand members of the National Federation of the Blind. It is not merely a matter of filing lawsuits. Those who would discredit legal actions ought to know that the National Federation of the Blind places many irons in the fire that start with assertive, but polite requests for access, demonstrations of the way access works in real life, and attempts to win the hearts and minds of those who can make a difference. Lawsuits emerge from many efforts at advocacy. And they can be extremely effective in changing circumstances for the better.

I had the great pleasure and honor of serving as an expert witness in the Arizona State University Kindle lawsuit. One might think that the dispute was intensely polarizing as advocates for access and advocates for the status quo sparred over the issues. To my surprise and delight, I found just the opposite. Colleagues who were advocating for the University were secretly and not so secretly cheering us on. The people responsible wanted to find a way to get past the logjam of discrimination and to get on with the business of post-secondary education. Of course they used their intellect and experience to oppose the lawsuit, but they were emotionally in step with the movement for equal access to information. They knew the blind held the high ground. They knew we were right.

Unfortunately being right is not enough. Having the law on one's side is not enough. Relying on the remote hope that technology will solve a political problem is not enough. The blind must engage and that is what the National Federation of the Blind is doing. I think history will show that we made the correct choices.

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